The thing that struck me the most about this middle batch of episodes in Homeland’s season 3 where two titles that were references to modernist poetry. I admit that this might not resonate with just anyone, and I fancy myself more of a media scholar these days, but with my roots in English Literature, this two episode sequence stood out to me immediately. So, this week I would like to look a bit at these two episodes (Season 3, episodes 7 & 8) and talk a bit about how they might relate to the poems they reference and the movements out of which these poems come.
Season 3, episode 7 is titled “Gerontion,” which shares its name with a poem by famed modernist poet, T.S. Eliot. Eliot’s poem, to summarize, is something of a stream of consciousness by an aged man regarding his relation to the world around him and his interpretation of history. The narrator of the poem seems to understand the futility in attempting to understand history or even our own concept of reality. Consider this piece, “Think now/ History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors/ And issues, deceives us with whispering ambitions,/ Guides us by vanities.” This passage certainly suggests the nebulousness of attempting to find anything absolute in our understanding of history and, perhaps, suggests a powerlessness of any person in the overall scheme of things. Afterall, the following line states “Think now/She gives when our attention is distracted/ And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions/ That the giving famishes the craving.”
If we think of this poem in relation to the episode of Homeland, with which it shares a title, I think that perhaps this poem rings true in looking at the relationship dynamic between Saul and Majid. Both of these men have been at the intelligence/political game for quite some time and each of them seems to understand that there is a fruitlessness to the “back and forth” that occurs between warring entities. The following exchange between these men seems to suggest as much:
SAUL: Well, we’re both old men, there is no disputing that.
MAJID: We are.
SAUL: It’s the curse of old men to realize that, in the end, we control nothing. So we lash out. Buenos Aires, Berlin, Bergen. These are small acts, Majid. Unworthy of you.
MAJID: You left something out. The bombing of the CIA. Nothing small about that. Nothing unworthy.
SAUL: Well, I wanted to talk about that, too.
MAJID: I’m sure you do.
SAUL: Because when that bomb went off, killing all those people, many of them my friends, my first thought was not revenge. It was, “something has to change.” You hit us, we hit you. It’s always the same.
MAJID: And how does my going back as your spy change any of that?
SAUL: For years, we toiled in back rooms, you and I. We toiled while shallower men held the stage, waiting for our time to come, gradually understanding it never would. Now it has, unexpectedly.
These old men have also seemed to lose themselves in their own interpretations of history, but unlike our narrator in the poem, these old men have been offered a chance to redeem their power instead of allowing the wind to, as happens in the poem, be “driven by the Trades/ To a sleepy corner.”
The next episode, “A Red Wheel Barrow” is a reference to William Carols Williams’ poem, “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Carrie even references the poem directly within the episode in a coded batch of texts. A restricted number writes to her, “So much depends upon…” to which she replies, “A red wheel barrow.” Although at this point, I think that, within the story space, this is just a coding tactic, I think that this poem can be understood within a larger context as it relates to what is going on in the show. The poem is frustratingly short and devoid of any punctuation, but this strangely suits this show. Every plot that is devised in this show is dependent on some (seemingly) small thing, without which, a plan can be doomed. For example, the CIA depended on Fara’s information on Majid to secure his compliance in Saul’s plan for Iran. The lack of punctuation in the poem can be understood in relation to the seeming lack of operational protocol for the characters within the show. Much of what these characters do is dependent on their own creativity and thinking “on their feet.” Williams’ poem has some general consistency in form (in relation to its own structure), but the rules that typically guide language (i.e. punctuation) are not present to inform the reader. The reader of the poem is implicated in the process of deriving meaning in an unclear environment, much like is expected of the intelligence officers in the show.
Even beyond these poems themselves, perhaps the modernist tradition from which these poems emerge can be understood to have meaning in relation to Homeland. Modernism is often associated with/derived from artists dealing with or working through the horrors of WWI, but more importantly in this context, it is often associated with looking at a new way toward progress via intellectual and innovative means. This idea is certainly present in the plan that Saul has derived in the hope that he can use Majid to help improve relations between the East and West, and more generally, in the collection and use of intelligence as a means to move the world forward.
All in all, I applaud the writers of Homeland for a smart and interesting use of literary references.